How can I ditch my bitchy friend now that she has cancer?

I was fed up with this woman. Then she got her diagnosis.

Published October 3, 2007 10:18AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have just spent three days reading all your back columns. I love your advice. Not only is it logical and practical, it's poetry. Fantastic.

OK. My problem:

I became friends with a woman I met at the dog park. We became very close very fast and had a great time together. She was a bit older, and maybe she represented a mom figure to me. (My mom's dead.) There were a couple of other women at the park we also hung out with, and we all started to go out to dinner once a week (my idea) to a local restaurant where we could take the dogs.

All of a sudden, this woman took charge of these dinners, e-mailing everyone at the beginning of the week to organize the next Friday night, sort of taking control of something that was happening anyway. Fine. But at dinner, I noticed she was starting to interrupt me when I was talking and yawning when I was telling a story, like a little kid vying for attention. It really hurt me a lot. Then she started making really nasty personal cracks to me.

My husband thought this woman was a flake from the beginning and couldn't figure out why I had befriended her anyway. I decided we were in a ridiculous power struggle and that this woman wasn't really a friend after all and that I would end the relationship. I didn't confront her and say I want to break up because she just wouldn't get it, so I stopped going to dinner every week and stopped seeing her as much. I was phasing it out, and just when I thought we were going our separate ways she was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer!

So there I was, not wanting to add to her anxiety and pain by telling her I didn't like her and didn't want to be her friend anymore. I was stuck. So I visited her in the hospital, and did a lot of research with her for alternative therapies while feeling empty and annoyed that I was such a wimp.

Some back story: A similar thing happened to me before with a boyfriend. We were in college. I had broken up with him. But before it was common knowledge that we had broken up, he was in a horrible accident where he was burned on 70 percent of his body and airlifted back home to Los Angeles to die. I had started another relationship in the meantime, but he refused to believe it. He told everyone we were going to get married.

I couldn't go back to him even though he was so sick. I told him that I was serious about the breakup, but he wouldn't believe it. So I stopped going to the hospital. I became a pariah. Everyone turned on me. They hated me. I was shit to them. Everyone believed I should have stayed with him no matter what. Anyway, he lived and has a family now and it turned out fine, but I guess I'm scarred. I'm a scarred wimp who can't tell people who are hurting me to get out of my life.

Anyway, I still see this woman occasionally, but I really want to just tell her to fuck off out of my life completely. I feel like I have no principles and that I'm weak and a pushover and a liar, and I know I'm hurting her even more because she knows our relationship has changed yet I'm sort of around and sort of not around. What should I do? (She's still in chemo and very sick.)


Dear Spineless,

At the heart of this is a deep and abiding hunger. It is a hunger for friendship and love. It is also a hunger for power, which brings seduction and betrayal. These are patterns that you can trace back through your life, patterns that repeat. It is a kind of music in its repetition, and there is poetry in its symbols -- there is even fire and burning! It is so rich in symbols that it can't be reduced to a logical system. That is, I can't give you clear instructions about how to proceed. I can only remind you that you are now alone. You are alone with this deep and abiding hunger, and it drives you toward certain people and situations. The only way you can make sense of it is to always ask yourself what is driving you.

But somehow just knowing that you are alone with your hungers and your patterns of repetition helps. It also helps to remember that your mother is dead. Perhaps that is because at the heart of this hunger for friendship and love is a hunger for an end to separation. So in that sense it has to do with the death of your mother. The lure of a mother, who can offer us complete comfort, an end to our agonizing separateness -- even absolution and forgiveness! -- is of course legendarily powerful, almost to the point of being considered a cliché. It is no less powerful for all that. You hungered for her love; her death was a betrayal. Now you find that pattern repeating. With your mother gone, with no way to ever get that feeling of ultimate comfort and merging with another, with no way to get her back or to completely mourn her absence, you walk around incomplete. Yearning for completeness, you are drawn to situations that seem to promise it.

Why? we ask ourselves. Why am I drawn to this? What am I looking for? Why isn't it working? We must learn to say: I am drawn to this thing that does not work because I am looking for something I can never have.

It isn't working because you want what you can't have. You can't ever have what you really want. These tragic entanglements with people who seem to offer things, they are so laden with longing because, having never completely admitted that you are utterly alone and powerless in the world, you get the feeling that maybe, finally, this time, this person has what you want! So I remind you that you are alone. You're on your own. Your hungers are your own private hungers. The thing to do is learn to carry them with dignity. Position them so they do not slide around and do not weigh you disproportionately to one side or the other. Is that too metaphorical? Perhaps it is. To be more concrete, then I would say this: When you recognize that you have met someone who makes you feel unusually hopeful, remind yourself that this is some kind of seduction, that you have some unacknowledged hunger that has just been stimulated, and when it is not met you are going to feel angry and betrayed yet again. Remember that this hunger is ancient and existential and will never be fed. Remind yourself that you are in a dangerous spot. Remind yourself that you know this spot. It's happening again. Let it go. Turn away. Return to yourself.

To summarize: You have deeply personal motives for reaching out to certain people; those motives make the ensuing entanglements more powerful and baffling than they would be otherwise. So that's one thing, the inner thing.

The other thing is this: Apart from our emotional attachments to people, we also have obligations to them as members of a community, or as members of a family. As fellow members, we have equal duties. You know this woman who is gravely ill. Many other people know her, too. Everyone who knows her cares for her to some degree. There are things each of you can do for her. It's simple human decency to do what you can. You don't need to overdo it or try to be a hero or be special. Just do your part, as one person in a community.

Finally, for the sake of argument, let us look at your life history not as a series of tragic difficulties or mishaps, but as an intelligent portrayal, as a drama with great truth in it. That is, imagine that there was some intelligence, or guiding principle, behind these repeating events. Imagine that the world was trying to tell you something, but it could only make itself known through events and patterns, expressing itself as though through a magnetic field of dramatic events. What would it be trying to tell you?

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